Matt Masters: We could learn a lot from protests

Matt Masters • Updated Feb 16, 2017 at 4:00 PM

In the past few years, the United States has seen an increase in social uproar, from political outcries on social media to a flood of petitions to some of the biggest protests in American history. It has felt nearly impossible to escape the coverage as it fills our Facebook feeds and our 24-hour news channels, simultaneously depressing, inspiring and conflicting many Americans as we search for our path forward into what will be the defining decades of the 21st century.

Protests have drawn attention and criticism and have stopped travel and commerce from New York City to Los Angeles to Nashville. The opposition to the protests has been mixed from government officials and police, with some cities cracking down with tear gas and arrests to others serving to provide a safe space for protesters. 

As the intentional blocking of traffic lanes, from city streets to interstates, has become a favorite tactic for protestors, it is clear that this struggle will face unique challenges.

Last week, Tennessee SB 944, which creates a defense against civil liability for drivers who may hit a protester who is in the road, was introduced. This does not work as a defense if the driver is found to have intentionally run someone over. Now one group is calling this legislation a free for all to run over protesters and the other side is saying, “Don’t play in the road.”

The bill itself isn’t really the issue, but the mindset behind it exposes another dangerous division between the American people. Because you can claim that one person’s right to protest shouldn’t impede your right to travel freely, but their right to life doesn’t become reduced because you want to get to Bed, Bath and Beyond before it closes. 

There is no excuse for enacting violence against anyone who is peacefully protesting, even if they are inconveniencing you. I know that in our need-it-now culture, it may be hard to accept, but there is no right that guarantees any of us a convenient or stress-free existence. Democracy is built and sustained on an active and engaged electorate who must communicate and command the struggles of freedom in order to keep freedom alive. 

When hundreds and thousands of people are coming together to express their grievances, running them down is not the answer – maybe we should be getting out of our cars and talking with these people about why they feel the need to lay in the dirty street and why they’re crying out in anger and pain. Some people might find they don’t completely disagree with each other. After all, these are our neighbors, our peers, our co-workers, families and friends. 

While you are not hard pressed to find either opinion online or in a coffee shop, you would find it challenging to find many people who have actually been personally inconvenienced by a protest, although that may change as they grow and continue. Many people complain about what they see on TV, but few have actually seen real social disruption in person. Our connectedness has brought the world to our fingertips and made everything feel personal, but sometimes our views on life aren’t formed from our own lives and experiences – that’s a dangerous thing in itself. 

It must be pointed out that some valid criticism has been brought up when it comes to protests disrupting emergency vehicles from getting patients to and from hospitals. Hopefully there is some effort that can be made to stop these serious issues from happening, but it may turn out to be that emergency workers may be forced to adapt procedures and responses to match the current climate of disruption.

These protests, fueled by anger and fear, are a response to both common and unique struggles – struggles that bring up our difficult past, our ever-changing present and our uncertain future. Our culture has been infected by anxiety and impatience, and our tendency and taste for violence only hurts us in our pursuit for a better future. Americans are vigilant and distrusting, a side effect of our freedoms and our constant search for liberty, but that doesn’t mean we should give in to the temptation to isolate ourselves from the plights and misfortunes of others. 

Because, when the day comes that we are all collectively wounded, we will look to our communities and our convictions to bind us together. We will remember the way that our neighbor treated us when we were silent and when we spoke, how they helped us and how they hindered us in our daily lives. It is then that we will make the choice to truly become united or divided.

Matt Masters is a correspondent and photographer for The Democrat. He lives in Murfreesboro. 


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